5) Prague’s Faust House: home of alchemists and other peculiar residents
As its name suggests, Prague’s Faust House is associated with a plethora of mysterious stories and legends. In this episode of Landmark Prague Stories, we head to the southern side of Charles Square in Prague’s New Town.
Prague’s Faust House, with its centuries-old colourful history, is not nearly as conspicuous as one might expect. Today the building’s red-and-grey facade, a mix of baroque architectural elements and later styles, is faded. Overall, it bears little resemblance to the dark place that Alois Jirásek described in his Stáre pověsti české (Ancient Bohemian Legends), a collection of historical legends written in 1894.
"The formerly red colour of the roof darkened, parts of the walls chipped off, and the windows, muddied with dust and rain, were almost blind with cobwebs."
In his work, the decrepit Faust House was the setting of a story about Dr. Faust and the Devil who arrived to take Faust’s soul. According to the story, the Devil takes the resisting Faust out of the building and to Hell, blasting a hole in the ceiling in the process. The hole is impossible to fix, every attempt to do so is followed by all the bricks falling out again.
The legend continues with a poor student moving into the house and eventually also being taken by the Devil. But historian Jaroslava Nováková says that such stories are far from the truth. As a former employee of the Prague Information Service, the city’s official tourist centre, Ms. Nováková knows the house well:
"The name of the building comes from the Romantic period of the 19th century, during which mysterious myths and stories were quite popular. No doctor of that name ever lived here. The reason why the house became shrouded in mystery and superstition was its history of unusual owners. Several former inhabitants of the building had an interest in alchemy or chemistry, including the 15th-century owner, Duke Wenceslaus II of Opavia. The ownership of the house changed several times, and the building went through different reconstructions and architectural changes. But one thing stayed the same – somebody interesting was always living here."
As Jaroslava Nováková explains, the area where Faust House is located was first settled much earlier than the Middle Ages – during pre-Christian, early Slavic times.
"A pagan burial and sacrificial site used to be either exactly where the house now stands or in the immediate vicinity. A street nearby is called Na Moráni, which hints at a connection with a pagan goddess called Morana."
In the Middle Ages, an important trade route went through the area. It connected the Přemyslid residence of Prague Castle to Vyšehrad on the other side of the Vltava. Only people of significant social standing could build near such a crucial artery, says Novaková.
"We know that the building used to be the court of the dukes of Opavia. They were very influential aristocrats, as the de facto founder of the clan was Czech King Přemysl Ottokar II."
The original Faust House was probably built as a palace by Nicholas I, one of Ottokar’s three stepsons. The residence then stayed in the hands of the family even after the Hussite Wars:
"One of Ottokar’s sons, Wenceslaus II, is said to have had an interest in alchemy and different chemicals which he used for certain experiments. Due to that, the house gained a bad reputation, as rumours of strange goings-on here circulated."
The building’s notoriety stayed with it. The next resident interested in alchemy was Jan Kropp, who was from 1528 the court doctor of Emperor Ferdinand I. Kropp probably also experimented with chemicals.
Rumours were also fuelled by the building’s location. It stood on the edge of a livestock market which was mostly visited by common people, to whom the house might have seemed fearsome.
The most famous of the Faust House alchemists and doctors was Edward Kelley. He arrived in Bohemia at the end of the 16th century, already a well-known figure at the time. Jaroslava Nováková:
"He was a man of very peculiar appearance, quite tall and slim with long black hair. He sort of resembled a wizard or sorcerer, if you will. He kept his hair long to hide the sides of his head, as his ears had been cropped as punishment for fraud."
Kelley first arrived in Prague in 1584 as an apprentice of the successful alchemist John Dee. At first, he and his teacher did not make a great impression on Emperor Rudolf II.
"The emperor was probably warned of the two Englishmen ahead of time. They were suspected to be agents of Queen Elizabeth."
Edward Kelley then left Prague for Southern Bohemia and found the patronage of William of Rosenberg. He received some land and money from the nobleman and eventually started to work for the emperor himself.
"Kelley was successful at Rudolf’s court, working his way up to become an advisor of the emperor, and he bought the house in which we stand today. To be precise, the house was bought by his wife, who sold her property in the town of Most in today’s Northern Czechia. Besides doing some experiments here, Kelley intrigued neighbours with his appearance and various unusual things he did."
The tradition of unique owners continued in the 18th century when the house was bought by Ferdinand Antonín Mladota of Solopysk. Earl Mladota was an inventor and took an interest in the principles of optics, electric energy, and magnetism. Two of Mladota’s heirs followed in his footsteps.
"One of them liked to collect and tinker with mechanical gadgets, for example, and he is said to have filled the house with moving skeletons and things of that nature. "
Part of the building was later bought by the Catholic Church, and Karel Jaenig, the head of the parish at the nearby Church of St. John of Nepomuk, moved in. It is said that Jaenig had a passion for collecting funeral items.
"During the 1830s and 1840s, romantic myths and legends were very much alive and fired peoples’ imaginations. It was during that time that Faust House got its name. "
Today the building belongs to the First Faculty of Medicine of Charles University, and alchemy is no longer practiced here. Nonetheless, the rich Faust House tradition is carried on. The interior is not open to the public, and the outside is characterized by a mix of styles, with some parts added during early reconstructions or during repairs after a 1945 Allied bombing. The Charles University Medical Club has its café here. Ms. Nováková tells us some architectural details:
"In this room, we can see a Renaissance vault and other elements from that era. This part of Faust House was luckily never damaged."
So, are these the oldest parts of the building? Not exactly, says Novaková:
"The parts built during the Renaissance are the oldest preserved. Although the walls themselves here are much older, because the oldest written record of this house comes from the second half of the 14th century. We know that the foundations of the house have been here for a long time, and the walls are Gothic up to a height of, say, several meters. The vault and parts of the walls are from the Renaissance. After that, other more modern reconstructions followed. "